The first 5 minutes of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds are something to remember. It begins with a bang, a terrifying glimpse into the online void all too familiar for anyone who has watched an unmoderated Twitch stream, or winced at the subtweets on an alt-right twitter handle, or gotten into an argument with a teenager.
This is because the start of a game of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is one hundred people, crammed into a small online space, with open voice chat.
And all this, in a game where your objective is to roam a huge, 8kmx8km stretch of land, to scavenge weapons and ammo and to be the last remaining player alive. It’s Battle Royale, except unlike the kids tricked into it on a school trip, everyone in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds knows what they have signed up for. So in the cramped and sweaty pre-game holding area, the player voices you hear are unrestrained, highly aggressive, and as abrasive as you can imagine any netizen to be.
“My most memorable encounter was with the young bloke who repeatedly whispered ‘Allahu Akbar’, quiet as a mouse…”
There are common threads lobby to lobby, too – there will always be a shout of “I’ll kill all you fuckers”, there’s often a sleepy-sounding baritone lazily proclaiming “y’all gon’ die” in a pleasing Southern drawl, and there’s any and every racial and sexual epithet thrown at you from people of all ages. By far my most memorable encounter was with the young bloke who repeatedly whispered ‘Allahu Akbar’, quiet as a mouse… Clearly, he yearned to be controversial – just not so much that his parents could hear.
Sometimes people are shouting in multiple languages at once, though you can kind of tell that they’re all voicing some kind of hyper-aggressive threat. The intonation gives it away. Occasionally someone will blast music in from their phone or speakers. It never sounds good. I’ve only encountered one chorus of screams so far. That was something.
So it’s pure rage, rage against the dying of the light. And you’d expect that to continue through the game, right? A game so clearly influenced by DayZ, the Arma III mod which spawned all sorts of folkloric YouTube videos, chronicling a plethora of weird, unique, and often sadistic interactions over voice chat. Hostage-taking and tense negotiations abound. But it turns out that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is, for the most part, an experience of quiet isolation.
The first thing you ought to know about the game, beyond the loony premise, is that it only takes a few shots to kill a player. If you’re lucky enough to have scavenged high level gear – bulletproof vests, helmets, that sort of thing – you might survive for a few more, which is enough of an incentive to need to be constantly scavenging, clearing your way through the game’s scattered buildings and settlements to find what you can. A high-power scope might let you see much farther across the map, a better backpack means carrying more ammo and healing items. So finding yourself the only soul in a completely deserted town affords you time to comb through the place properly, as well as getting first dibs on all the good stuff.
“It’s only the slightest suggestion of another human being that creates the most incredible, palpable sense of tension.”
You do this, moving from area to area, until the inevitable happens – the next place on your journey shows signs of human life. It might be a car suspiciously left idling that makes you forget all about scavenging. Has the player abandoned the car for some reason? Why did they do that? Or maybe it’s an open door – the game starts with all doors on the island shut, so an open door is a tell-tale sign of a recent visitor. Either way, far-flung from the bellowing raucousness of the pre-game Two Minutes Hate, it’s only the slightest suggestion of another human being that creates the most incredible, palpable sense of tension.
If your only goal is to survive, and firefights are over in a matter of seconds, your ideal scenario is one in which all the fancy, eye-popping server technology enabling one hundred people to play on the same map is wasted on a single person sat alone in a cabin, sights trained on a closed front door. Most multiplayer games are such that you just want to find other people and get to where the action is. In PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, you want to take your time, and gravitate to the center of the action only begrudgingly.
There’s a white circle which begins across the whole map and slowly shrinks, and if you’re out of the circle you lose health, which is the game’s way of slowly drawing all surviving players to a focal point. You’re constantly weighing up how long you can hold out before needing to stay in-bounds, pushing against the inevitable contact with other players. It’s typical to not see a soul for a good 20 minutes, before suddenly coming face to face with someone and dying. A game of constant tension, but one where this is eased the more sure you are of your own isolation. Cabin at the top of a hill, right in the middle of the shrinking circle, clear view, not a person in sight? Bliss.
But even then, all it takes is the sound of a closing car door outside to set you back from ‘vigilant’ to ‘pretty terrified’. You don’t know an unseen player is approaching because they’re screaming into microphones, you know they’re approaching because of the atmospheric sound design, from the terrifying ‘pop’ of a distant gunshot, to the ominous creaking of a door and muffled footsteps a floor above you.
Sure, you can try parachuting along with a load of other people at the game’s start, get into the action as soon as possible, but even if you survive the immediate post-landing brawl, you’ll likely emerge wounded and ill-equipped. You quickly learn, as if you didn’t know already, that you want to land somewhere remote, somewhere peaceful.
And the four-player team mode? Well, it’s fine to have some companionship but it’s never long before four players are whittled down to one. And then, yet again, it’s just you, your thoughts, and the cool puffer jacket you scavenged from a farmhouse.
“It’s a uniquely misanthropic and astonishingly lonely multiplayer game.”
The small handfuls of seconds here and there when you interact with other people are the most memorable moments of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds – of course they are. But they’re also the outliers, the jolts of extreme panic as an unexpected bundle of pixels invades your otherwise solitary stroll through the desolate countryside.
It’s a uniquely misanthropic and astonishingly lonely multiplayer game, and maybe that’s why the pre-game lobby so consistently burbles with the most vile and vocal of online hatred. You’ve told a hundred people they’ll get free-roam of a massive island, but not before putting them in such a small waiting room that all the commotion makes even the beefiest of PCs chop and stutter.
Maybe that’s the problem with the Internet writ large, a platform designed for mass communication but initially colonised by introverts and solipsists. Maybe these acts of vocal aggression are actually symptoms of a kind of cultural sadomasochism. And maybe, when people in that hot-blooded and overcrowded pre-game lobby shout down their headset mics, “I’ll kill all you fucking fucks,” what they’re really saying is, “I’d like to be alone now, please.”